The Realizations of Self as Seen in “The Cardboard Room”

by David Schlachter

In my opinion, “The Cardboard Room,” by Teresa Pitman, provides interesting perspectives on hatred and, perhaps, its causes.

The first thing that I noticed in the story was the symbol of walls. In my view, the purpose of a wall is to seperate. Why and what a wall seperates obviously varies situationally. In the story, I found that there were two main walls: the wall of Eric’s room, and the so-called walls of the narrator’s parents. The cardboard wall of Eric’s room, to me, seemed to provide temporary isolation to facilitate reflection. Eric’s room was a place to think. As a physical wall, it was partially open, was somewhat frail, and had a door. In sharp contrast, the walls that the narrator’s parents had placed were less obvious than Eric’s physical wall, although the did indeed exist. These walls were. “solid brick and mortar, impenetrable.” (105) What I found interesting was how there was no perceived way to leave or enter these walls, as opposed to Eric’s wall. His wall was temporary refuge, while the other walls were a debilitating prison. How did the narrator escape?

I think that the narrator was expelled from the wall in slightly the same fashion as Eric and his family left their native country. “The pains (…) come stronger (…) and closer, until it becomes too much to bear. Finally, you have no choice.” (104) I think that the narrator escaped her parents’ walls by seeing, perhaps,a better ideal. Eric wasn’t focused on the shallow ideals of social acceptance or temporary pleasure, he was interested in how himself and others perceived reality. Really, he was a genuine friend to the narrator, and this helped her to shed her parents’ walls.

In the story, I was also interested by how and why these walls were created. I think that fear was ultimately the cause of these miseries. Really, when fear is left unchecked and is not dealt with, it becomes a wall to shield an individual from the unknown. In a basic sense, it is a way to hide, to bury fears by burying self. People in a group create similar barriers, and depersonalize themselves to depersonalize the fear. In Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the boys hid their fear of old taboos by hiding their faces and playing to their animalistic bloodlust. By hiding self, the hid the ideals of their society, enabling themselves to become killers. Like Golding’s characters, the parents of the narrator created walls based on fear that depersonalized other and did not lead to happiness. Their walls hid their fears, never allowing them to confront themselves, and keeping them in a perpetual state of fighting self.

I think that this fight against self merits some explanation. The parents’ brick and mortar wall was not constructed in an instant. It was carefully laid, shroud upon shroud, deception upon deception, brick on brick.

“Once you get used to hating one person, it somehow it seems to get easier and easier to expand that group, to include more and more people in it.” (102)

However, I think that this view of walls including people incorrect. First of all, walls do not separate people. Returning again to not only Lord of the Flies, but also Heart of Darkness, the only evil is the evil inside oneself. That is the only thing we fear. Really, we are deceived by thinking that fear comes from external sources, such as people. Since all our fears reside as part of self, what is the result of covering fear? We cover self, and so the fear remains festering in the dark abysses of one’s soul, while evading the shallow realizations of a person’s self. Hate is the result of the fear that remains uncontrolled. When the self’s expression of this hate lashes out onto another individual, who is damaged more? Was Eric lacerated by the hate of the parents? Or was the parents’ figurative knife stabbing that their own heart? I think that the latter is true. If Eric was damaged, he damaged himself. Perhaps the hate of the others merely feeds the hate of another, helps to shroud the fears inside another being. Then that self continues a vicious cycle within the only universe it knows, the self. Essentially, hate feeds on hate, and fear feeds of fear.

Personally, I think that everyone is shrouded in these layers of fears put away. Like the layers of an onion, or the figurative wall, these layers take time to accumulate. In Genny Lim’s poem, “Children are Colour-blind,” the innocence, and perhaps the lack or self-deception, that is apparent in children is discussed. “Dani doesn’t paint herself yellow,” says the poet of her three-year old daughter. Does a child like Dani paint over the aspects of self that she would rather not confront? I should think that although we begin this process as we begin to find ourselves to be sentient beings, Dani is quite different from the parents in Pitman’s story in that she has not begun to enclose herself in the walls that she will use to define other. She does not paint herself yellow, and therefore, she does not paint others. We do not have feelings for others until we have had the very same feelings for self. For example, how can one love another if the do not have love for self?Is the “love” they supposedly feel about another anything but a mirror of their own emotions? Is the same true for hate? For fear? Is our conscious mind attempting to cover our actual emotions? Perhaps the nature of what we believe to be emotions for others is really just a reflection. Dani does not paint herself; Dani does not paint others. The parents of “The Cardboard Room” hate others, so do they hate themselves? Is the effect of hiding their fear this hatred that the author speaks of?

I liked how Pitman used the concept of an epiphany in her story. I found that her analogy of being born worked with particular effectiveness: “Finally you have no choice but to be born into the new country. The cord is cut.” I thought that this example of epiphany was carried over to the narrator’s actual situation. Her accumulated insights gradually forced her from her parents’ wall, or the wall inside herself, to break down the wall. It was as if she had no choice but to continue growing and shatter some of the walls within herself. In time, she effectively broke free of these particular limitations, but the figurative umbilical cord kept her tied to her old ideals. I personally believe that the cord was effectively severed forever with the discussion with her parents. I particularly liked how Pitman described the parents’ manner as calm and cold. I think that the diction (“coldness”) helps reinforce that the distance between her new and old selves.

In conclusion, I think that Pitman’s story, “The Cardboard Room” provides material for an interesting exploration of self. Perhaps hate is an archetype that is worth exploring, and literature such as this allows us to gain insight into this interesting phenomenon.